My Word: The driverless car and the bumpy road of life

Intel hopes that the purchase will put it in the fast lane to creating mass accessible driverless cars, once the stuff of science fiction.

A vehicle equipped with Mobileye technology (photo credit: COURTESY MOBILEYE)
A vehicle equipped with Mobileye technology
(photo credit: COURTESY MOBILEYE)
One of the cleverest road-safety campaigns that ever ran in Israel boasted the catchphrase “On the road, don’t be right, be smart.” It was aimed at getting the country’s (in)famously daring drivers, whose worst nightmare is being considered a loser, to give way when necessary.
The saying, a worthy motto on the bumpy road of life, came to mind this week with news of the multibillion-dollar purchase by Intel of Mobileye, the Israeli hi-tech company that produces warning systems alerting drivers when they are too close to another vehicle or hazard.
Intel hopes that the purchase will put it in the fast lane to creating mass accessible driverless cars, once the stuff of science fiction.
The mind-boggling $15 billion acquisition is an attempt by Intel to give competitors a run for their money, making the autonomous car only a short way down the road time wise.
I used to watch the Knight Rider series, which featured a shadowy crime buster and the real star of the show, KITT, his car, which was equipped with artificial intelligence and a winning way of its own. The classic NBC series (there has since been a remake) was first broadcast in 1982 – we didn’t even have a telephone at our home in northern Israel, and mobiles were something you hung on a crib for babies to grab.
We’ve all come a long way since then.
Israel, the Start-Up Nation, has come farther and faster than most. In 1982, the year the First Lebanon War broke out, the Iron Dome rocket-intercepting system was also unimaginable.
LIKE MOST Israelis, I am proud of the major deal in which all roads lead to Jerusalem, where Mobileye is based and Intel also has premises. Nonetheless, I realize the road ahead might not be smooth. And we all know where following a road paved with good intentions can lead.
Articles about the potential hazards of self-driving cars abound. One giant shadow is the risk that a car could be hacked and hijacked, with the driver and passengers in it or without. Unexpectedly high on the list of problems is the fact that automotive vehicles, unlike the average Israeli driver, are just too polite. A car might falter at a traffic circle, for instance, where it is programmed to give other vehicles the right of way even if that will cause a traffic jam. Similarly, artificially intelligent but emotionally devoid, a driverless car cannot tell when a pedestrian standing at a crossing waves the vehicle to carry on.
More seriously, the self-driving car cannot weigh moral pros and cons, and does not have the ability, for example, to judge for itself the benefit of swerving and risking hitting a lamppost or jamming on the brakes because a child’s ball has bounced into the road and the tiny owner is just about to follow.
MIT Technology Review ran an article a couple of years ago with the attention-grabbing headline: “Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill.” “How should the car be programmed to act in the event of an unavoidable accident?” it asked. “Should it minimize the loss of life, even if it means sacrificing the occupants, or should it protect the occupants at all costs? Should it choose between these extremes at random? ... The answers to these ethical questions are important because they could have a big impact on the way self-driving cars are accepted in society. Who would buy a car programmed to sacrifice the owner?” The same questions were raised by Israeli commentators this week following the Mobileye deal.
A suitably scientific solution is shaping up.
The car has no morals, but it does have algorithms.
With enough information, it should be able to make an informed choice, without the emotional reaction of a flesh-and-blood driver.
Mobileye’s technology is part of the answer, and the driverless car seems to be the way to go. As The Jerusalem Post’s Amotz Asa- El noted earlier this week: “The autonomous car will drastically cut road fatalities, because it will remove from the roads the reckless driver who is one of modernity’s most efficient killers, harvesting annually 1.5 million fatalities and injuring a further 50 million people worldwide.”
Many predict that ultimately this type of car, in the Internet of Things way, will reduce the need for family vehicles as it will be able to autonomously navigate and balance needs such as juggling school runs with rides to and from work. In cities, people will be able to use them like bigger, more comfortable rental bikes, picking them up and dropping them off at the most convenient point.
“This acquisition is a great step forward for our shareholders, the automotive industry and consumers,” Brian Krzanich, Intel’s CEO, said at a news conference in Jerusalem announcing the deal. “Intel provides critical foundational technologies for autonomous driving, including plotting the car’s path and making real-time driving decisions.
Mobileye brings the industry’s best automotive- grade computer vision and strong momentum with automakers and suppliers.
Together, we can accelerate the future of autonomous driving with improved performance in a cloud-to-car solution at a lower cost for automakers.”
“We expect the growth toward autonomous driving to be transformative,” said Ziv Aviram, Mobileye’s co-founder, president and CEO. “It will provide consumers with safer, more flexible and less costly transportation options.”
This is a big deal in every sense. Israelis have already proved that where there’s a will, there’s a Waze, the now-essential navigation app that can tell drivers the best way to get from Point A to Point B by taking into account the particular hazards and traffic build-up at any given moment. When Waze was acquired by Google in 2013 for $966 million, it was a major (exit) sign on the road to success.
Artificial intelligence, however, is exactly that: artificial. The real world is full of hazards and surprises. We might be able to get by one day with driverless cars, but the country will always need leaders with responsible hands on the steering wheel.
As I noted in a column I wrote in 2014, when Google tested a self-driving car, I often feel that too many of the country’s politicians – both Left and Right – are being driven by their fears and failing to do the smart thing. A true leader in the driver’s seat cares for the kids chorusing “Are we there yet?” but doesn’t speed up just to satisfy them.
To take the country in the right direction, a leader must be smart enough to know when to yield, even if he or she technically has right of way, yet be assertive enough not to get stuck at a junction. No one drunk with power is safe behind the wheel – literally and figuratively.
It’s one thing to be able to drive with your eyes shut; it’s another thing to drive with a closed mind. Even in an age of autonomous vehicles, there will still be a need for people and leaders who can think independently and intelligently.